The pink, spherical Neon Galactic was in a dim rest stage at the moment, and hung, low and shallow, in the sky.
Content warning: death, discussions of illness and disability
Yi = one in Chinese Mandarin
Enam = six in Malay
gno hoon zheng = five minutes in Teochew dialect (Singapore)
Shomm DjoKen rose at noon. The pink, spherical Neon Galactic was in a dim rest stage at the moment, and hung, low and shallow, in the sky. It was dark enough that the waterglass could be unfaded.
Shomm sat, staring at the wall for just over an hour. She handled the faded digi-hologram on her bedside table of her mother, Alinta, wondering what she would say if they ever spoke again. But in the few hours that she had been awake, her audiophone had not rung.
Shomm spent the next hour pacing around her apartment, pulling and adjusting the furry, double-sided comfort blankets on the floor, the couch, and her bed, first in one direction, then the other. Today, they just didn’t look right. “Maybe if I just align them to this corner…” she murmured. But that did not help. Then, she buffed her crystal succulent plant to a dull glow. Good. It wouldn’t need another cleaning for a few weeks. Not that it mattered—she broke the thought off, looking around for a distraction. Her eyes settled on the furry comfort blankets again, and she wondered if the double-sided blanket on the couch would look better with its other side up. Reached towards the nearest corner to turn it over—but then she finally let herself complete the thought that had been resurfacing in her mind all morning. It wouldn’t matter, because she would never see them after today.
She released the thick blanket. Left it alone.
Finally, it wasn’t too early to go. Shomm mounted her VectorZapper bike, stepping over her personal Radiglass which lay, broken and useless, near the front door. Useless! Like her physical body, which was deteriorating, a bone at a time, from an acquired osteoporotic disease. Day by day, ticking towards the time when she would be unable to move without excruciating pain, screaming from broken, deformed bones—Shomm shoved the thought aside.
It was well into Ultraphase Yi when she vectored into University Zero-Zero-Enam, ignoring the dull ache from the fifth metatarsal bone in her left foot. The buildings were lighted in various shades of pink, studded with flashing nodes and lined with pipes that pumped Shimmer Glow along the building surfaces in an erratic—some would say aesthetic—fashion. Today was Point A for the Mechanica students, and they were roaming around the Plexiglass Yard as the air ducts shot packaged Zero-Zero-Enam jumpers at them, fitted to the precise dimensions of their body and in the exact colour code that they wanted. There were even jumpers in the #99666 colours or duller ones like #e9967a. Everyone perceived colour slightly differently, due to the unique proportions of the RGB cones in their eyes, and so the jumpers were produced accordingly.
It took gno hoon zheng for Shomm to reach the ToilSpace—Zero-Zero-Enam was big. It might have been named Enam after the Track that it was on, but it knew that it was yi among the other Universities. It hadn’t always taken her that long to get to places. Probably just my age. Thinking tired, old thoughts today, Shomm! she scolded herself, laughing ironically somewhere in her mind. It was supposed to be funny. There was only one thing that she could do about her bitter reality—smile, like she didn’t mind, like it didn’t matter. She was one of the younger of those who went to Zero-Zero-Enam, only twenty-three—it normally took over thirty years, a third of a lifetime, for members to gain the skills and experience to earn entrance into Enam. Only twenty-three! Too young for this, for today, she whispered to herself, because no one else would admit it. If only there was someone who would acknowledge her quiet, secret thoughts, deep down, which told her that even multiple techo-alterations wouldn’t be able to save her joints, ravaged from her bone disease.
Her audiophone still hung from her waist, heavy and silent. Why did she bring it along? Even if her mother called, it would just be a put-down of everything which she had planned and prepared for. She shouldn't have brought it with her. By now, after a whole twenty-three years, she should have known that she would never get what she needed.
Never mind. That was what she was here for, today. It won't matter anymore after this, she told herself again, gripping the handlebars of her VectorZapper so hard that her knuckles showed, and blood pooled, red and mottled, in her fingers. Because, somewhere in her mind where she could not get to and smooth it out, she still wished things were different. That her mother and brother would look at her radio-scans and see the sneaking black lines along her weakened bones, and would see what she had already lost. She wished, against all reality, that her father would say something for once, instead of looking down and forcing out, from his dark, ruddy face, the words, "Why can't you just focus on your studies, instead of running around, doing these things?" It’s the only thing I have left! My mind! That's not a lot, you know! That's not a lot! She pulled, hard, at the rough pink outer layer she wore, hard enough to rip it. Acting like a child, she snarled. Her throat tightened and tears welled up in her eyes. Couldn't breathe, again. Stop it, and shut up. But her thoughts ran on. She wished that she could rely on her own self, on her own body, without needing anyone else to empathise with her. But when you don't even have your own body, she knew, you have lost something irreplaceable, something that most other people will not understand.
Dismounting her VectorZapper, Shomm leapt off its metallic pink tubing and onto the brick ground surrounding the ToilSpace, ignoring the jarring jolt as she landed, hard. The ground was made of beautiful, wavy, composite plasto-crete, which she could not see from behind the frustrated tears blurring her eyes. Their shifting multicoloured grooves would have been a comforting distraction, but all she was conscious of were the words, it doesn’t matter. I don’t mind. Today will make everything fine. I may not have a body, but I have a mind, repeated over and over again in her head, to drown out her other thoughts, her lips in a thin, painful line.
She stepped through the decontamination chamber at the entrance, the pressurised air jets whooshing dust and other particles off her clothes, to protect the sensitive and intricate computer circuitry within the institute. There was a moment of utter, startling darkness. Then came the jolting light from all directions, stronger than even the most fluorescent pink you could find outside the ToilSpace. The intense visual stimulation seared away her burning anger and silenced her churning thoughts. The light in the ToilSpace came straight from the particle accelerator buried deep under the city, and it was concentrated and pure. Pink wasn't even really a colour, just an illusion of red mixed with purple light. And in the ToilSpace, the concave surfaces reflected the light rays so that they mixed and whizzed around each other, reflecting and refracting across the layers of fragile mosaic glass, creating a sublime iridescence that her mind could not process. Her eyes were closed by now, but she could still see the brightness as the surrounding electromagnetic network subtly rearranged her brainwaves to simulate the experience of sight. Welcome to ToilSpace, said a digi-artifice voice that she had not heard before. Already, today was different from the other times she had come. Even the dry air that brushed against her skin, filtered and injected into the space, felt cooler than usual.
Even after all her preparation, visualising the neural network in her mind till her eyes hurt, as if she was actually seeing it, after learning the web-like diagrams which got more complex every week, she did not know what it would really be like. No one did—those who had gotten beyond this point were no longer able to communicate in a way that could be understood. She shivered, even while she straightened her back and gritted her teeth. Her left molar nearly fell out. She would have smiled, but there was no time. Be serious! she scolded herself, conscious of the irony. Nevertheless, underneath it all, behind her laughing thoughts, there was still a bitterness about her situation, and a dull, vast, irresolvable sadness. A sadness—that today was it.
Today was the day that Shomm would donate her consciousness to the neural network which powered the city’s research. Today was the day it wouldn’t matter anymore that her body was deteriorating with no cure. Today, it would not matter that no one would see her pain. She pushed aside the memories of being in the vast grass fields on the edge of the sector, the sunlight warm on her face and bare arms, with nothing but the sound of the tall, rustling grass. Only a year ago! Before her ribcage had stiffened so that she could not breathe without stabbing pain. Things changed so fast, with a body like hers.
In a second, the memory faded away, and all she was left with was the chill of the ToilSpace, conscious of her tongue, thick and dry in her mouth, unable to swallow, and with clenched teeth biting back the words that she wanted to yell. After today, she would never know her own consciousness again.
Shomm gripped her hands tightly, fingers interlocking each other, nails digging into her soft flesh. In the hard, quiet, empty space, there was nothing else to hold.
Twenty-three years old, on the 7th of Undecim, 2053, as night began to fall outside, Shomm whispered,